• The World View

    A blog from the Center for International Higher Education


Investing in International Students

Preliminary data hint that universities need to give deeper consideration to the implications of working with third parties. 

June 15, 2014

Universities wish to enroll international students for many reasons, not the least of them, the significant revenue international students provide to many institutions struggling to balance budgets.  Sadly, many of these institutions pursue international students without making the corresponding investment required to insure sustainable enrollment success or international student satisfaction. 

The excerpt below from Alex Usher’s daily blog posts echoes the nagging discomfort that I have about using agents and pathway programs for a quick influx of international students without thought or planning to what this initiative requires and merits.   

The idea of investing money to make money later on isn’t entirely foreign to universities – but doing so via the international office often isn’t possible. Most of them weren’t set up as revenue-generating units . . . . I’m pretty sure this is one of the reasons international offices turn to agents, rather than building up their own networks abroad; the latter requires upfront investment, while the former just requires paying for students once they arrive – which, as you can imagine, is a lot easier to sell within the bureaucracy. If institutions are serious about playing the international game, they need to get serious about how they fund and manage it.  Too many haven’t bothered to do that.

The problem was underscored at the recent NAFSA conference in San Diego where research was presented on issues that affect the retention of international students.  Elizabeth Redden reported that international students feel short-changed when it comes to access to jobs, internships, and scholarships.  Additional sources of dissatisfaction are the quality of meal plans and housing.  

A parallel survey of international education professionals indicated that the main reason for transfer was to find a “better fit” institutions.  Of the 517 international students in the sample, 51 had already transferred to a different institution and 59% planned to transfer.  Interestingly, international students who planned to leave the institution where they first enrolled are likely to have lower grades leading one to wonder about the appropriateness of the initial placement and on whose advice it was made. 

Certainly, campuses need to be prepared to accommodate the food and housing needs of different cultures that most likely do not align with the needs of local students.  Additional thought needs to be given to how opportunities such as internships and on-campus jobs can be extended to international students so that their college experience is on par with the experience provided to local students.  If the university recruits without consideration to the implications of international students on campus, the likelihood that these students will be pleased with their choice is clearly diminished, as evidenced in these preliminary studies.  

Better service to international students places a greater burden on the capacity of the International Student Office, often staffed by a single person.  As Usher points out, universities often recruit without including the International Student Office in planning let alone by allocating additional funding to support increased international enrollment. 

But success for international students depends on a broad campus commitment. In Karin Fischer’s report from the NAFSA conference she quotes Lawrence Bell, executive director of international education at the University of Colorado at Boulder, who asserts that successful enrollment and retention comes from a campus-wide network that extends beyond the international office to include faculty members, academic advisors, the bursar’s office, and other key people who interact with international students on campus. 

Although there are no data to correlate the dissatisfaction of international students with recruitment through intermediaries, these preliminary data hint that universities that hope to successfully integrate this constituency need to give deeper consideration to the implications of working with third parties.  This increases the distance between the prospective student and the campus, increases the risk of inappropriate placements and decreases the likelihood that universities will acquire necessary information about the needs and expectations of international students.  Furthermore, when universities subcontract recruitment, it is difficult to believe that that institution will make the necessary commitments on campus.

Again, from Redden’s report, Sheila Schulte, senior director for international enrollment management and international student and scholar services at NAFSA, emphasized that universities need to help students better understand the academic expectations and the financial burdens in the recruitment phase, prior to enrollment, "so that when they get here, they’re really set for success."  This is less likely to happen when recruitment is done through third parties.

This study was sponsored by NAFSA and conducted by World Education Services.  Clearly these data are not definitive but they portend an alarming trend.  It is encouraging that the session on this research attracted an overflow audience.  Let us hope that more research will follow and that the conclusions will inspire some re-thinking by senior administrators. 


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